Dec 13 2021

Blaming the Victim

If someone gets seriously ill from COVID, to the point that they need to be hospitalized and even placed in ICU, and they were unvaccinated, how much should we blame them for their illness? This question can have practical implications, if we base decisions on allocating limited resources and insurance coverage of vaccine status. I wrote about this dilemma recently on Science-Based Medicine (and then discussed it on the SGU), and it sparked a lively discussion. Some of the responses amounted to justification for blaming the victim, which is essentially the core of the issue, and an important concept for activist skeptics to handle.

Blaming the victim can occur in many contexts. Within skeptical circles the most common manifestation is to blame people for being gullible (which is essentially the opposite of being skeptical). If someone, for example, falls for an obvious con it is easy to feel contempt or even anger toward that person for their gullibility. Sometimes gullibility is combined with scientific illiteracy. There are numerous pseudoscientific products on the market that require someone to have essentially no idea how the world works in order to believe the claims (or alternatively to compartmentalize any thoughts of mechanism of action). There are products that claim to improve the taste of wine simply by waving a plastic card over the glass, or to improve your athletic performance because you wear a small piece of rubber on your wrist – imbued with “frequencies” that harmonize with your body’s natural rhythms. There are fuel additives or devices that claim to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency of your car without any downside. And of course there are endless free energy devices that “they” don’t want you do know about.

It’s easy to write all this off as “caveat emptor” – if people pay a small price for their gullibility and scientific illiteracy, that is perhaps how it should be. We can then congratulate ourselves on being less gullible and more knowledgeable. Or we may moralize about individual responsibility, touting the fact that we invested the time to learn how to protect ourselves in a world full of con artists and scams. Blaming the victims of scams gives us the illusion of control (we can protect ourselves) and serves our sense of justice (people largely deserve what they get). But is this sort of blaming the victim morally or intellectually justified?

Our emotional reactions may change depending on the context. When product scams make medical claims, we may be less inclined to blame the victim, typically in proportion to how sick or disabled someone is. If someone buys into a fake cancer cure, we may give them a pass because they were desperate. Or we may convince ourselves that there was no actual harm done, if it gave them some hope.  But still, the more it costs the victim in money and health, the more we may want to blame them for not seeing the obvious scam for what it was. How could you give a guru $100,000 for magic water, and forgo standard medical treatment to boot?

The magnitude of the loss does seem to enhance the blame, perhaps because we need that blame more to lessen our cognitive dissonance. If someone gives a psychic tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to lift a curse, it’s hard not to marvel at the level of gullibility involved. We may be more sympathetic toward victims when we see ourselves in them. People who lose money to shady investments, like the victims of Bernie Madoff, had no way of knowing they were being victimized by a Ponzi scheme (or did they?). How can people be expected to have high levels of medical or scientific knowledge to spot a sophisticated scam?

But the instinct to blame the victim is always there. When a woman is victimized by sexual assault, it doesn’t take long for people to ask – what was she wearing, or doing? Was she drunk? Why was she out so late? Some psychologists have speculated that this instinct may partly come from our upbringing. Our parents are always telling us – don’t do this or something bad will happen. Don’t be too close to the TV or you will ruin your vision. Don’t go out without a jacket or you will catch a cold. Don’t run with scissors, don’t climb high trees, etc. So when something bad does happen, our minds immediately go to – what did we do to make this happen. When children get sick (even with cancer or through 100% bad luck) they often feel they did something wrong to deserve it.

The topic of responsibility for bad outcomes is clearly complex, however. The fact is, our choices do have an impact on the probability of being victimized or harmed. We are ultimately individual moral agents responsible (as adults) for the decisions we make. Those decisions have consequences. Yet it is important not to flip things around morally. We should take actions to be healthy, be safe, protect ourselves, and beware. We should learn good internet etiquette so we don’t click those malicious links. We should be familiar with how cons generally work. We do need to be skeptical, to be savvy consumers, and to take responsibility.

But all of this is a spectrum. Anyone can be conned, if the con is sophisticated enough. No one can be infinitely on guard all the time. No one can be a master of every area of knowledge. And all of us are vulnerable to some degree and in some contexts. No one, in short, is perfect. So while we may encourage people to protect themselves, and offer the tools to do so, that does not have to translate into blaming them when they are victimized by a con artist. The perpetrator is still the con artist, and the victim is a victim.

Further, people are complex, and none of us are completely responsible for our own situation. We all are the product of our genetics, our upbringing, our environment, and our culture. Getting back to the choice to get vaccinated, for example – people may choose not to get the COVID vaccine because they have been victimized by misinformation, sometimes relentless and sophisticated misinformation. Some are simply going along with their tribe or their ideology. Some may be mistrustful of the system with good reason, because of past exploitation and broken trust.

Your tribe may be on the right side of science in this one, but can you honestly say you are never influenced by your tribal affiliation or your own ideology? I know many people who are angry at those who refuse to get vaccinated, while they will not buy GMO products or will use homeopathy or acupuncture. People are not to blame for the family or society into which they were born. They are not to blame for the educational system they had access to or for the ideas that are drummed into them every day by their culture. We are all a result of a complex set of factors, mostly beyond our control. We still need to hold people accountable for their choices, in order for society to function, but we should not cross the line into morally blaming victims and using that as an excuse to deprive them of justice or care.

From a moral, legal, and pragmatic perspective we should treat victims as victims, and put the blame where it belongs, on the perpetrators. Even there, however, our moral judgements are complicated. Many perpetrators are also victims. Most people who spread misinformation were first victimized themselves by that same misinformation. There are a minority of true psychopaths in the mix, and they need to be treated accordingly. And even there they were likely born that way, and can’t be blamed for the genetics they were handed. But generally speaking our default should be sympathy and humility, not instinctual blame.

This, of course, bleeds into the discussion of free will – do we truly have free will or are we just carrying out our “programming”? Without going down this philosophical rabbit hole, the pragmatic outcome is that we hold adults responsible for their actions, but we respond with sympathy and humility because we are all just struggling with the human condition. We also all exist along many parallel spectra of ability, personality traits, and resources. We should be striving to elevate ourselves and each other as much as possible, but not blame anyone for being less able than us in any one respect.

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